Homily for the evensong feast of st albans

St Albans Cathedral, June 19, 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters, dear friends,

The Gospel of John we just heard proclaimed is taken from Jesus’ long and intimate discourse with his disciples, at the end of the Last Supper. It occurred just before his leaving the upper room, going to Gethsemane, where the agony in the garden began. These phrases, carefully and lovingly gathered by the disciple “whom Jesus loved”, are the last recommendations of a teacher to his pupils, the last words of a father to his children, the sincere gift of counsels, coming from the heart of a man, who knows this will be his last time to speak.

Reflecting on these verses, it may seem that Jesus is touching different unrelated topics, which the Evangelist strung together. The Gospel can give this impression: the Lord tells us about the new commandment of love, and then warns us about the danger of persecutions, that has no relation to love. That would be a superficial way of interpreting ideas, which are truly closely linked, and part of the same concept.

Jesus calls his commandment new, because it brings a completely new approach to the way the commandment of love was phrased in the Old Testament. You may recall, in Leviticus (19:18), Moses gave the Israelites the Word of God: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. And then added: “I am the Lord”. This means this Word is indeed a principle of human wisdom, which establishes a reasonable balance between my desire for myself, and my neighbour’s desire for himself. And both desires are ratified by God’s will and wisdom: “I tell you this, I ask you to do this, because I am the Lord”. Jesus now tells us something completely different. The reference point until now was human wisdom, nothing more than a human understanding, of a useful way to peacefully relate with others.

Jesus starts a revolution, that we could compare to the “Copernican revolution” in the understanding of the universe. Until the time of Jesus, the standard of love was by human wisdom. Now with Jesus, we are called to the standard of divine love, by a God who gives his life for us. There is no more a rational understanding of wisdom; there is no more a balance between giving and receiving. We are faced with the most astonishing sign of generosity: God gives us everything and invites us to imitate the same generosity in our relationship with those around us. We can truly say the measure of God’s love for us is the total absence of measure: if we try to find out we can only say that the love of God is immeasurable. And the same absence of proportion is asked of us: giving without any calculation, without any interest or hope of receiving in return. “Love each other as I have loved you”, nothing less. If we take this commandment for what it means, and if we consider it seriously as a rule to live by, we should not be surprised to see that our faith is not in fashion today, as it has never been in fashion in the world, since Jesus died on the cross at Calvary.

At this point, as a logical consequence to the commandment to love each other as he loved us, Jesus speaks about the world’s hatred and refusal of his message: “They have persecuted me, they will persecute you also”. Persecution is the sign of our discipleship. It is the proof that we are indeed following Jesus, in full fidelity to his word. Martyrdom is therefore not an accident in our Christian itinerary, but the consequence of who we are and how we live. We are all called to be martyrs, a word that in its original sense meant “witness”. We are asked to be witnesses of Christ, to publicly testimony, with the same honesty and solemnity, with which a witness testifies in front of a judge, in a trial.

Can we avoid facing martyrdom? Of course, we can! It is enough to leave aside the Word of God, to forget the Gospel and the Cross, and embrace the human wisdom of what is in fashion and politically correct. If we follow public opinion, we will be very popular, accepted by everyone. There will be no closed doors in front of us, no ironic allusions in broadcasts, no insults; only a lot of “hosannas”, and the elation of being on the right track, ready to conquer the world. On the contrary, the world will be conquering us, and leading us to betray our faith, which is Jesus himself, the word of life. And, don’t forget, our faith is not expressed simply in taking part in a liturgy, in reciting a certain number of prayers and in accepting wholeheartedly the Lord’s teachings. Social teaching, the consequence of the Beatitudes, the message of peace and justice, the request to care for the poor and the underprivileged, is all an essential part of our faith and of it too, or perhaps I should say primarily of it, we must be witnesses.

St. Alban gave his life for his faith. The decision to spare his life and to continue living happily and successfully could have been an easy one: he only needed to reveal the whereabouts of a priest he sheltered, and show his goodwill by burning incense to the gods, as a sign that he had returned to idolatry. That could be done without much fuss: burning incense, and yet saying to himself he still believed in Jesus. But this external act would have had a meaning, and could not be interpreted differently by those who could have witnessed it or heard about it. It would have been seen as if Alban, who was a convert and had been baptized Christian, had now betrayed his new faith. He had gone back to his idols, he had refused to belong to Jesus. Sadly, in our times, those who profess their beliefs in words, but act completely differently, and then deny what they have said and done, are common. There are many examples, in every field of social life, but they are people of no account. We know that we cannot rely on them: they are two faced. Their words have no weight. A martyr, an honest witness, is someone in whom we can trust, whom we can admire and whose example we would like to imitate.

At this point, we should ask ourselves: is martyrdom, in its full meaning of giving one’s life for one’s faith, something just belonging to the past? Something, so to say, referring to the times of St. Alban, whom we like and admire, whom we celebrate, but who has little to say concretely to us today, living in a civilized world, where everyone can freely practice religion and live according to his conscience.

Believe me. This is not so. I don’t know if I should say this: sadly, or happily, because to hear about martyrs is at the same time sad and joyful, depressing and encouraging. The news of martyrs gives us the general impression that things are getting bad, and yet there is still hope and reason to be comforted.

There are martyrs also today, who die because of their love of God and neighbour, because they refuse to follow the world’s mentality and the arrogance of the powerful. They are convinced that a love, like the one Jesus has for us, is not fulfilled simply with the gesture of giving alms to the needy, but requires the change of unjust structures in our society, in which there is little space for those whom Jesus put at the forefront: the hungry, the thirsty, foreigners, the naked, the sick and prisoners (cfr Mt. 25:31-46).

Allow me to tell you about my personal experience. When I was in Kenya, as the Representative of the Pope, three times I was asked to celebrate the funeral Mass of missionaries, who had been killed, because of their stance in defence of the poor. Brother Larry Timmons, a Franciscan Brother, from Ireland – was doing too much to promote the education of the poor (You know: educating people is dangerous. Later they may think, and even think differently from those who are on the top); Father Luigi Andeni, a Consolata Missionary, from Italy – he fearlessly denounced an MP’s theft of the money destined to build a children’s school (he should have accepted the idea that MPs may steel. I mean down there, in Africa); Fr John Kaiser, a Mill Hill Missionary, from the United States – he spoke out against the involvement of important politicians in the massacres and displacement of entire villages of people. I can assure you that all three of these religious were martyrs. They were killed because they were Christians, and because they remained faithful to the message of love, “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:15). 

The martyr St. Alban is not far from us. He is not alone. Many other names have joined his – we could even say: every day, in different parts of the world, discipleship of Christ is difficult, and professing Christianity may be considered a crime, something to die for: I think of the seven Sudanese youth, crucified in Darfur. I think of the many priests and laity imprisoned in China and Vietnam; of those massacred in some regions of India; I think of Fr Andrea Santoro and of Bishop Luigi Padovese, both sacrificed to the fanaticism of Islamic fundamentalism.

We do not know how the Lord will allow us to be tested. We can beg him to be compassionate towards us, because of our lack of faith. We can implore him not to put us to the test, but the test will come our way. We must be ready: to be witnesses of our faith in the risen Lord, to be evangelizers by our life and words, following the example of Our Lord and his Saints. In this way our celebration of the martyr St. Alban will have a meaning for our life, for the life of our society, and for the life of the entire world.